A little-known program under federal environment law is being used to permit oil and gas companies to inject waste into the state’s aquifers, even as the thirst for groundwater grows.
As the western United States struggles with chronic water shortages and a changing climate, scientists are warning that if vast underground stores of fresh water that California and other states rely on are not carefully conserved, they too may soon run dry.
Heeding this warning, California passed new laws in late 2014 that for the first time require the state to account for its groundwater resources and measure how much water is being used.
Yet California’s natural resources agency, with the oversight and consent of the federal government, also runs a shadow program that allows many of its aquifers to be pumped full of toxic waste.
Now the state — which relied on aquifers for at least 60 percent of its total water supply over the past three years — is taking steps to expand that program, possibly sacrificing portions of dozens more groundwater reserves. In some cases, regulators are considering whether to legalize pollution already taking place at a number of sites, based on arguments that the water that will be lost was too dirty to drink or too difficult to access at an affordable price. Officials also may allow the borders of some pollution areas to be extended, jeopardizing new, previously unspoiled parts of the state’s water supply.
The proposed expansion would affect some of the parts of California hardest hit by drought, from the state’s agriculturally rich central valley to wine country and oil-drilling fields along the Salinas River. Some have questioned the wisdom of such moves in light of the state’s long-term thirst for more water supplies.
“Once [the state] exempts the water, it’s basically polluted forever. It’s a terrible idea,” said Maya Golden-Krasner, staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, which is suing California to force it to complete an environmental impact assessment of the proposed aquifer changes. California, she said, is still offering breaks to its oil industry. “We’re at a precipice point where the state is going to have to prioritize water over an industry that isn’t going to last.